Musicians’ Régal

An Ensemble of Flavours for Artistes 

My last post considered the food and wines offered train passengers travelling to an Episcopal Convention in San Francisco in 1901.

Another menu from history, also in 1901, for another gathering – nay in San Francisco – is our subject today. It’s not a church group this time, but a labour union, a musicians’ protective association in the city.

The dinner was offered in honour of the group’s charismatic president, Eugene E. Shmitz (pictured, via Wikipedia). Having started out as a violinist, he had just been elected mayor of the city.



San Francisco has long featured a countercultural and radical ethos, not exclusively to be sure – it was and is very much a business city. Still, much of its social history connects to the former, and Shmitz was an exemplar. He was a popular mayor and served multiple terms before becoming embroiled in graft and other charges, which derailed his career.

In a former time, a Sinclair Lewis might have lightly fictionalized the lively story of Shmitz; today it would make a fine movie.

The menu makes an interesting contrast to the meals enjoyed by the Episcopalians. It was probably served at a hotel although the menu makes no mention of the venue.

As befits a group of artists, many of whom were probably of recent European origin, the menu has a number of Continental touches. Numerous local-popular ones oddly complement; in many ways, that is the story of Bay Area cuisine writ large.

One of the entrées (appetizers here) was sweetbread patties à la poulette, which means with a rich sauce of butter, cream, and egg yolk. This is bourgeois French food, or higher perhaps. A spring chicken sauté with mushrooms is vaguely French too – bonne femme though, tending to the American. No saucy garnish.

Starting the meal was oysters from the East Coast, considered superior then to the smaller West Coast varieties. Next came a French-style consommé. Then, an intermezzo of Relishes, typical for the time.

Celery, olives, pickles, seafood salads, ham, and tongue comprised that course.

There followed the sweetbreads and chicken, then “tame” roasted duck, and turkey, peas and potatoes, fruit, ice cream, cakes, tortes. And cheese!

A mid-market version of the fulsome society banquets typical of Edward’s age, but lavish enough. One wonders if people ate everything, or selected portions.

The drinks are interesting, in part due to how the menu positions them viz. the courses. Sauterne, from the California Wine Association (CWA), went with the consommé. This wine, typically considered sweet in the fashion of the archetype, Sauternes, could in fact be medium dry or drier, per a mid-century excursion on California wines (author not credited in the source).

Semillon is the classic grape type but the California version could be made from a different grape, or a mixture, see source again.

Zinfandel, evidently well-established in the state even by 1900, also came from the CWA. It went with the salty Relishes, oddly by our standards today.

Two types of water, still and sparkling, were taken with appetizers and vegetables, and beer with the meats – Wunder Beer. Yet more strangeness at least in formal dining terms.*

Wunder was a bottled lager from one of the smaller pre-Prohibition breweries in San Francisco. At the time, brewing in the state was constantly disrupted by labour wars. A 1901 letter to the editor claimed the company was “fair” – used only union staff – which likely helped secure its place on the menu.

The beer was a popular touch, i.e., for a style of dinner where wines would normally appear, but suited evidently the audience.

Champagne with the dessert, fair enough. Provenance not stated, perhaps French, or American East Coast. I don’t think sparkling wine was yet established in California, but happy to be set straight.

The Duncan water was probably from a spring on south Vancouver Island, near Duncan, British Columbia. It’s of note that such a (relative) staple would be fetched from afar, given the abundance of good water in northern California.

The lure of the foreign, perhaps. To this dayB.C. Artesian Springs in Duncan supplies a pristine water sold all over Vancouver Island.

I wonder, had the menus been swapped for the Episcopalian and Musician Union events, would anyone have noticed? Presumably the caterers knew their markets. And in truth musicians, for their part, have had a special relationship to food, cooking, and wine.

The Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale, or RILM, collects and disseminates music research. A paper on its site states:

The relationship between food and music has a long history. Many great composers and performers were connoisseurs, and some even contributed to the world of recipes. Food and wine often inspired new works and influenced the creative process of the composer; both have been the subject of many musical works from drinking songs to the savory gastronomical and culinary references in the operas of Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi. Food has also served as payment for musicians, or has been part of their allotment. In both Western and non-Western cultures, food and music are at times part of the same ritual, and both may encourage a sense of community, trance or meditation…

The satisfaction the San Francisco musicians no doubt found in their meal and drinks gains deeper significance when considered in light of the foregoing.


*Or were all the drinks made available at the outset, for service at will? I am not sure, but incline to a sequential method of service.




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